Wednesday, 23 May 2018

The New Conservative Middle Way

A new Conservative think tank, Onward, has been launched this week. This is clearly an attempt to do a Macron and to help rebrand the Tories for a modern generation that is being attracted to some of the populist, not terribly well though through, knee-jerk politics of envy being proposed by Chauncey's Marxist Labour Party.

It's not clear what sort of ideas this new think tank will come up with but it is branded as liberal and so that is certainly a clue.

A better word surely would be pragmatic. Perhaps it is time for Conservatives to make more use of that word because it is a better description for the middle way politics we actually largely support. Even Brexit, which opponents routinely try to label as extremist, is actually an example of pragmatism because it is a reaction to the unbending zealotry of the federalists in Brussels.

The Tories do of course need a rebrand. We also need a rethink. I am as guilty of being unbending as many in the party on economic matters, but I flatter myself that I am open minded about most things. I never had a problem with gay marriage for instance and couldn't really understand why anyone would object to it.

Where the party has the opportunity to change minds about is on issues that have helped brand us, often unfairly. At every election of the last 40 years, Labour has tried to claim that Tories want to privatise the NHS. But even Mrs Thatcher in her pomp never dared to take on the NHS. It has been tinkered with here and there but remains as it has always been. That is actually part of its problem, but it is part of the proof of our pragmatism nevertheless.

And we should also hold up our hands and accept that whilst privatisation of many industries has been a triumph it has been less successful in others. I argued last week as I have always argued that the reason rail privatisation has now been as successful as we hoped - although it's still carrying more passengers on new trains - is because it was privatised badly. But maybe we should use the East Coast effective nationalisation as a test case and announce it as such. The Government is prepared to be open minded on the issue and see which works best. If a publicly owned service acquits itself well then it might be extended. This is not the same as bringing back British Rail, which was also an ignominious failure. What it is is pragmatism.

And perhaps it would be as well now to admit that, though austerity was necessary and the public finances are now looking much healthier, cuts to some services may have gone too far and resulted in issues that need addressing. Cuts to defence and the police have gone too far and the reason that crime is rising is because criminals have realised that they can act with more or less impunity in some areas and committing certain crimes. When criminal gangs can stop traffic on a London bridge in order to steal some BBC cameras in broad daylight it is more than arguable that police cuts may have gone too far. Investment in more police is urgent.

The same is true of defence in an increasingly dangerous world. Britain remains an island with a global outlook and reach and we need to invest to ensure that remains the case. The time has come to reconsider the 0.7% of GDP spent on international aid when we are struggling to fund our own security in a world where Russia also thinks it can act with impunity on our own streets.

In truth Conservatives have always been pragmatic. We have always wanted a balance between public and private, between state intervention and libertarianism that argues to get out of people's lives. Sometimes we get the balance right and sometimes we get things askew. But pragmatism is broadly a small C conservative approach and is that of the British people. It isn't an ideology.

And broadly we are in favour of lowering taxes as far as possible whilst delivering decent public services and giving a hand up to those who need help. That is the diametric opposite of punishing people for getting on in life, hitting them with punitive taxation and ending up disincentivising hard work and thrift. At the same time we have to recognise that there are unique challenges facing the country in the globalised world in which AI may soon be putting people out of work and in which we are more and more living in a gig economy of no stability and job security. We need to build hundreds of thousands of new homes across the country and the market is simply not providing them. If it falls to the state to do so then so be it. Conservatives did this before in the 1950s, they most assuredly can do so again. And should.

That should be the thrust of Conservative policy and should have been the thrust of last year's manifesto. Do we really need a new think tank to tell us that?

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